A safer way to send illegals back to Mexico

Exhausted from stumbling around the desert for over a week and shaken by the first airplane ride of his life, Noe Asuna Felix is sitting on his haunches, trying to figure out what to do next.

He's got less than $5 and knows no one in Nuevo Laredo, where he's been deported. His home in Hermosillo, Sonora - the Mexican state that borders Arizona - is a two-day bus ride from here. "I don't know what I'm going to do," he says, looking around the parking lot. "I don't even know where I am."

Mr. Asuna is part of one of the last groups of illegal immigrants to take part in an experimental deportation project, known as the Lateral Repatriation Program. It involves rounding up illegal immigrants in Arizona and flying them to four Texas border cities before releasing them back to Mexico. The goal, according to the US Border Patrol, is to save lives.

So far this fiscal year, 147 illegal immigrants have perished in the Arizona desert, making it the nation's most dangerous border crossing. Through the Lateral Repatriation Program, the Border Patrol is trying to discourage repeat attempts by Mexican immigrants, many of whom simply turn right back around after being deported, and try again to cross into the US.

But Mexican officials blast the program as shortsighted and inhumane, while officials in Texas say it's adding more stress to their already beleaguered border cities. It raises old questions of how to keep illegal immigrants from crossing and new questions of how to protect them when they do.

The pilot program was launched Sept. 8 and ended this week. Border Patrol agents say they are considering repeating it next summer, and point to a drop in deaths and detentions as proof of success. During three weeks in September 2002, for example, six immigrants were found dead in the Arizona desert. Last month, there was only one.

But Daniel Hernández Joseph, the Mexican consul in Laredo, says that logic is faulty and there is no clear evidence that the program saves lives.

"There are too many variables to draw such quick conclusions," he says, taking a break from processing this latest group of immigrants. Mexico, for instance, is currently experiencing some of the worst flooding in a century, and that could be keeping Mexicans at home.

In addition, Mr. Hernández says, the program does nothing to address the real issue. "We need an immigration accord with the US. Law enforcement alone can't be the solution." He estimates that his Laredo office has spent some $9,000 in bus fares, meals, and telephone cards for the immigrants.

The US government, on the other hand, is spending $28,000 per chartered flight. There are two a day, carrying about 150 immigrants each, and they rotate between El Paso, Del Rio, Laredo, and McAllen.

That money is not being diverted from other programs within the Border Patrol, says Alfonso Moreno III, the agent in charge of intelligence for the Laredo sector. It had already been set aside under a border-safety initiative.

Regardless, says Mr. Moreno "this program was designed for one reason only: to save lives. And how can you place a price on that?"

He says since the program began, there have been only three confirmed reentries in Laredo and no increase in apprehensions - challenging the idea that the Border Patrol would simply be moving the immigration problem from one state to the other.

While some mayors along the Texas border remain unconvinced, the real impact is on the Mexican side. In Nuevo Laredo, for example, a total of 1,426 illegal immigrants arrived during the month-long experiment.

Of those, the Mexican government calculated that 511 bought bus tickets home. The rest simply vanished into the bustling border city. Many have been spotted sleeping in town squares, in parks, or at the bus station.

At the Casa del Migrantes Nazareth, a Nuevo Laredo shelter that provides migrants with food, clothing, and a place to sleep, Sister Leonor Palacios says they have been struggling to meet the increased demands. Last week, for example, 130 showed up to eat within a few hours of each other. "But they're not sleeping here," she says, gesturing into a large room crammed with old mattresses.

This is not the first such program. In the mid-1990s, the Interior Repatriation Program flew illegal immigrants to their hometowns in Mexico. But it was canceled because so few immigrants volunteered.

The idea behind this latest voluntary repatriation program is that most immigrants come from Mexico's interior, so getting home from Texas should be no different from getting home from Arizona.

Victor Corte is one of them. Clutching his dusty backpack, he says he'll just board a bus and head back to Mexico City. "It doesn't really matter to me."

But it matters to Asuna, whose home is a short trip from the Arizona border. This was his first crossing, and he says it will be his last. The ordeal has been horrible.

Border Patrol agents say they're trying to screen out immigrants like Asuna, but some have slipped through the bureaucratic cracks and been sent to Texas - adding to their frustration.

"We were lost in the desert for a week, dodging snakes and drinking dirty water. And now I'm even further from home," says Asuna. "I'm never going to try that again.

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